Defending equal pay for all against objections from the achievement principle

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One strong objection to “equal payment for all” comes from a recognitive approach to justice. In that approach, modern individuals are entitled to make different kinds of justice claims, corresponding to different demands for recognition. On that basis, we should distinguish recognition that emphasises our equal moral standing, which typically ground demands for equal rights, from the recognition of the specific contributions an individual, or group of individuals, makes to social life. This second type of recognition, which German sociology and recognition theory refer to as Leistungsprinzip, the “achievement principle”, follows a non-egalitarian, meritocratic logic based on the valuation of distinct contributions. Such valuation is inevitably comparative, relating to the value of the individual “Leistung” for the collective, or some intrinsic characters of the performance, for instance its level of complexity, the learning or personal investment it might require. According to the achievement principle, it might appear that equal payment for all would breach a key normative underpinning of modern societies. It would rob individuals of a major source of recognition. Indeed, it would undermine a principle that was crucial in replacing old, unjust societies of order, where the distribution of economic and symbolic goods was based on birth and inherited power, with a more egalitarian social model where, ideally at least, individual effort is the sole criterion for social esteem. In this paper, I want to provide a rejoinder to a critique of equal payment for all based on the performance principle. I present three considerations for this rejoinder. First, I highlight the recurrent injustice and arbitrariness of social evaluations of achievements, which, for example, systematically undervalue “manual” versus “intellectual” labour. Second, I argue that even if a scale of achievements could be objectively established, this would not necessarily justify unequal distribution of economic goods, as other principles might override achievement in distributive allocation, namely individual need and the dependence of individual performance on social resources. The third argument is of a negative, preemptive kind and stresses that accepting unequal distribution of economic goods arguably leads to structures of social domination.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDebating equal pay for all
Subtitle of host publicationeconomy, practicability and ethics
EditorsAnders Örtenblad
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9783030535759
ISBN (Print)9783030535742
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

NamePalgrave Debates in Business and Management
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
ISSN (Print)2524-5082
ISSN (Electronic)2524-5090


  • Equality
  • equal pay
  • achievement principle
  • Honneth, Axel, 1949-


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